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Home » Horse Human Relationship » Medicine Herd

If spirituality is that aching, inner sense of the numinous, that draw to return Home, then my relationship with horses is of the same “substance”..

The work I do now with my Herd, is a result of my own personal unfolding. My spirituality and Horse are the same thing. In what I write here, please understand there is no judgment intended. It is an illustration of one person’s understanding of their evolution with horses. As soon as I had the consciousness to know what horses were, I yearned for them. It was as if I already knew what they would smell like, how they would feel, how it would be to be carried on their backs. My heart beat was the sound of hooves; in the wind I felt the whip of mane across my face.

How It Started

My first pony came to me when I was 9. An Exmoor pony named Flash, bought for me by my young step-father, desperate to make a relationship with this child he suddenly found himself father of! Flash taught me that force would get me nowhere. Using force to get what my desire nature wanted would end in tears – and did, again and again! 

At the tender age of 9, I had to learn to look at this magnificent creature, not as something that had been bought to give me pleasure, like a toy, but as a being in his own right. A being whose species had been on the planet for 50,000,000 years; a being who knew instinctively the tides and turnings of the land, who knew his needs and how to fulfil them, under Sun and Moon, from Spring through Winter and back to Spring.

Our Horses are our Mirrors

When I look around now at my neighbours, and I see horses segregated from each other in tiny paddocks “in case they hurt one another”; or standing for hours in stables; or festooned in a whole variety of rugs and fly sheets and sun sheets, my heart sinks. This is how one species will subtly disempower another. By projecting our own fears and anxieties onto our horses, we will eventually impact their relationship with the planet, and result in them being less able to cope naturally with weather, with insects … with Life. Perhaps …

And how we are with our horses, is how we are with ourselves. There is a climate currently, of becoming more and more protective against and defensive of, the natural world, both inner and outer. We seem to be tending towards (metaphorically) the idea that if we segregate ourselves from one another, if we segregate ourselves from our more challenging emotions, if we festoon ourselves beneath (metaphorical) rugs and fly sheets, we will somehow save ourselves from harm … and then may be we will live forever!

Limbic Regulation 

As a child, my life was turbulent and I often felt frightened and anxious, and I was often alone. I began to notice that, when I was with Flash, I felt calm and safe. Here was Another who, unlike the people around me, accepted me just as I was, without judgment, without the incongruence of saying one thing whilst meaning something else, something shadowy.

Now I know that this ability horses have to calm us and to soothe our triggers, is called limbic regulation and is the magical component in all animal-facilitated therapy and learning. Limbic regulation is how the panicking Herd becomes calm again once the predator has struck and everyone returns to grazing. This is what the horse offers us during trigger moments, when our nervous systems are in flight mode.

In Flash’s company, in the familiar ambience of the stables, I found ease and understanding. In the presence of the pony I came to the implicit knowing that all was well – in the Deepest, where it matters.

By the time I was 13, I had outgrown Flash. He became part of a new family where he taught two more little girls how to be with horses – and ultimately, themselves. I never lost contact with him and he lived well into his 30s.

Growing with Whisper

There then followed a desolate year in my life where I was without horses. I withdrew into myself, my school work suffered and I did not have friends. Once again it was my big-hearted step-father who saw my predicament – and Whisper came into my life.

Whisper was 7/8 Arab, liver chestnut, with flowing mane and 4 white stockings – every horse-mad girl’s dream!

When I reflect on what Whisper brought into my life, it was the gift of companionship that was perhaps the most valuable, as I moved painfully from childhood into teenage angst and young adulthood.

 In his Arab grace and delicacy, he walked beside me, or carried me through lessons in responsibility and the growth of the human shadow. He was with me when I entered love relationships for the first time, and when I met my most influential human teachers. He was my Horse through all of this and more, and his steadfastness never wavered. Or perhaps he was just being himself, and it was my steadfastness that never wavered.

Emotions in a Human 

Dawn Oakley-Smith and her horses

Teenage years have as their main thread, storms of emotion. Our consciousness has developed to such an extent that we are able to see our emotional responses and reactions rising, and there is opportunity for distance, clarity and understanding. 

Emotion is energy-in-motion and is our most useful and powerful communication from our inner dynamic. What is going on for us really is conveyed by emotion – the information brought to us provides the energy needed for action

  • if vulnerability rises, something is about to change
  • anger means a boundary has been violated 
  • grief, some loss has occurred over which we had no control.

Emotions for a Horse

When an emotion rises for a horse, he receives the information, takes the action, and goes back to grazing. This is one of the most profound lessons the horses bring us. When an event occurs and we have our emotional response or reaction, it is important to return to normal conditions as soon as possible, and not remain attached to the trauma response.

Where does emotion come from ? Where do we first feel it ? Our bodies are brilliant receiving devices, but in our teenage years our relationship with our bodies is at best, uneasy. We are most often not prepared to really listen to the messages our bodies are bringing us. We would prefer just to survive, reacting and emoting to the things that happen.

Taz and the Riding School

It is our emotional life that the horses are now called upon to help us navigate. To do this effectively they need to be fully in their power. This cannot be the case if the Herd is being continually fractured and disempowered by our misplaced human interventions. This has been my learning.

My next most significant equine teacher was an unhandled, 4 year old, Hanoverian x Arab who I named Taz. Although Taz was in my life for many years, it was only fairly recently that I discovered the meaning of the name. Shaun Ellis, the “wolf man”, came for a visit and explained that “Taz” is a Nez Pierce word meaning, “mighty and kind” – Shaun’s great, dark Beta wolf bears the same name. Taz and his two wild brothers came into my life just as I was becoming disillusioned with traditional horsemanship. 

The Survival Mechanism

At the time I was working as yard manager at a riding stables where I was becoming aware that most of the horses were in a state of “shut down”, or “dissociation”.  Soldiers returning from war, prisoners, refugees, abuse survivors, all descend into this state eventually. It is a survival mechanism. The mind trying to save itself; the soul protecting its existence. 

Adrift without a particular human to relate to, no-one listening to their side of any conversation, over-worked, natural responses suppressed or triggered by metal and leather, spur and whip, in constant fear and uncertainty, the riding school horse dissociates. Many become dangerous as their minds are not present and they default into panic. Who has not witnessed a child falling from a spooked or bolting pony in a crowded riding lesson?

Taz and his brothers arrived into this environment, purchased by the owner of the stables, and were herded into a large, open-fronted barn at the back of the busy yard. Then began, for me, my university education in the language of Horse, a saturation in true horse nature.

The Language of Horse 

Medicine Herd

A beautiful, poetic and deeply transformative Dance with wild spirit of Horse, such as in this day and age, it is almost impossible to find – a PhD in approaching the Wild, the Wild within and without.

Desire and the Will to dominate had no place here, just as it should have no place when relating to Self. This was about listening and feeling and responding with the appropriate amount of energy. This was about finding the sweet spot between I and Thou, me and You, and being there. Open mind, open heart waiting for the universe to speak

Surrendering into Horse Time

It is beguiling, that realm of being without doing; and it is golden to remain there, just breathing in the scents of horse and hay, experiencing the sense of calm that descends after the initial reactive tension of interface. To let go of the extraneous concerns of life, to become Observer, Witness – of horse and Self. The busy-ness of the yard faded into the background; the busy-ness of my life receded into another dimension as I let go and surrendered into Horse Time.

I suppose what occurred during the hours, days and months I spent with Taz and his brothers, in the dance of advance and retreat, pressure and release, was that the principles of acceptance and non-judgment, of allowing what Is, became a part of my psyche. It is these principles that inform the Work I do, with people, in partnership with Horse. And in my Journey into Self in relation to Other.

In don Juan’s words, in the books by Carlos Castaneda, “it is a Path with Heart”.

My Path with Heart

Somewhere along this Path, perhaps 11 years ago, it became time for me to offer back to the Universe something of what I had been learning. This was not exactly a conscious decision on my part, rather the movement of the Universe.

When a person chooses to turn to horses for healing, it is because they have identified a need in themselves, a lack, an ailment – they are facing their Wound. Very often they have tried doctors, psychologists, other forms of talk therapy, and nothing has worked. Or maybe horses are their first stop, because they are aware of their connection with animals and nature, or may be horses have always been in their blood.

Consider R:

Here was a man in his forties with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome; a man who had been born in a war zone and, as a child, had witnessed and experienced horrors that had resulted in PTSD. His relationship with his mother had not been easy. R had received the message from his early childhood that he was not good enough, that he was unloveable and, worse, that he was damaged and damaging

Despite all of this, R attended at Harvard, moved to England and created an extremely successful business. In our culture, we do not deal well with the highly sensitives – their abilities, insights and behaviours are often labelled “autistic”, and medicated. But R knew that something was deeply amiss in his life, that, in his own words, he was “in a great soul darkness”. He had tried many other therapies, but none had been able to shine any light in this darkness, or come anywhere close to leading him out.

Moth’s Gift of Presence

The first horse to come forward to offer her Presence to R was Moth. This immediately told me that the issue to be addressed was R’s relationship with his mother, regardless of what other story he might present with. Moth’s own mother had died whilst giving birth, and consequently Moth was hand-reared. Whenever she offers herself to work, I know the issue will be around mothering. It was R’s relationship with his mother that would be the way in to exploring the rest of his inner landscape.

As R poured out a torrent of well-rehearsed words about his life, words that he had repeated many times before during his other talking therapies, he dissociated into the story he was telling. He had heard the sound of his own voice telling this story so many times it acted as a sort of self-hypnosis, allowing him to vanish from present time and to hide behind the old narrative. He did not even notice Moth standing beside him, quietly licking-and-chewing as she processed the incongruence, the discrepancy between story and reality.

How R Woke Up

Into the torrent of words, I interjected with, “Tell me about your mother”. The statement stopped the story in its tracks, as it always does. In don Juan’s words, the statement shifted R’s assemblage point. The flood of words stopped. R became still, became present – he woke up to the world before him, felt the breeze, and saw Moth standing with him under the big sky. Something about the presence of the small, black pony, so obviously choosing to be with him in that moment, caused tears to flow and, in that simple release, the way to healing was opened.

Medicine Herd

Moth was able to respond in this way because she lives an empowered life, she knows her place in the Herd and is secure there. She is not distracted by the anxieties that beset horses who experience constant human interference and disruption to the natural order.

She is secure in who she is – accepted for who she is – which means that she can sense and respond to the signals from the limbic systems of the humans she encounters.

HeartShore in the Early Days

By understanding the basic needs of our horses, and attempting to fulfil them, we are ensuring that they are given the best chance to be in right relationship with themselves, us and their world.

 In his 4-day Intensive with the HeartShore herd, R received much in the way of healing, directly from the horses, and from the interpretations I supplied. Some little time after his visit, when he had re-entered his daily life, R sent a note. “Just a quick note to say that my life has been changed since the days I spent with you”.

The early days of HeartShore’s evolution, its trajectory to where it is now, involved work with autistic people and their families. Somehow my Journey, and particularly my understanding of horses, and the keeping of horses, provided an environment that was extremely effective in the facilitation of horses encountering autism.

Consider C :

Soon after HeartShore came together, and when the Herd stood at eight members, I was approached by Ruskin Mill College, a local facility for the education of individuals diagnosed with all forms of autism, and run on the lines of Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophical ethos and ideology. They had heard of me and my approach from one of their staff members, and wanted to refer one of their most challenging students, C. 

C had a deep love of horses, but was being traumatised at a traditional riding stables, where he was being taught to discipline the horses if they exhibited their individuality, if they tried to speak out against what they were being made to do. The Instructors’ attitude of, “He’s taking the piss, give him a smack!”, was inducing in C extreme panic attacks that were leaving him rolling around on the ground, completely lost in his trauma response to the use of violence.

As a young child, C was beaten and kicked by a father who just did not understand his son’s extreme behaviours, and thought he was, “… taking the piss!” This same attitude, directed at the horses by the Instructors was bound to trigger C as he identified with the helplessness of the horses.

Medicine Herd

It has been reflected to me many times that what we do at HeartShore is accept everyone for who they are, and allow freedom of expression within sensitively-held boundaries. There is a powerful sense of Tribe, or “authentic community” amongst us all – staff, clients and, of course, the horses – we are all Heard.

The huge heart and limbic system of the herd, enabled and empowered by natural-keeping, provides the perfect environment for the autist’s soul to turn towards healing. C flourished at HS.

Consider next, S:

S came to the horses in 2009, when he was a small, wiry 9 year old. Without speech, prone to the most extreme behaviour and explosions of violence, and possessed of a feral beauty that moved the Heart, he arrived at HeartShore like a whirlwind ! 

The first time he came, he appeared at a dead run around the corner of the tack shed – and kept running ! Across the yard, under the fence and straight out into the Herd, who were waiting for him in the Zone, near the water troughs. Taken by surprise I was slow in pursuit. S ran up to the largest horse, Murphy, a great, black, 16.3 Irish Cob, and kicked him in a foreleg ! I was shocked and angry – with the child, and with his mother, who still had not appeared!

Murphy did not flinch. It was as if he, and the horses around him, quietly and effortlessly opened their ranks and absorbed the impact of S, just as a lake absorbs the impact of a stone thrown into its depths. S was a stone thrown by the hand of God into the lake of Horse.

The Medicine of Wild Nature

After this initial violent interface, S moved around the great horse, touching him with delicate hands, running inquisitive fingers through his tail, and exploring with fascination the huge, thickly-feathered hooves as they bore Murphy’s one ton upon the earth. 

All I could do was stand by and witness this encounter with awe. If I want to know a person, I need only read them in the widening and softening eyes and nostrils of my horses, in the flicking ears, shifting hooves, swishing tails, sounding breaths … so that when L, S’s mother, finally caught up with us, I was able to allay her fears and reassure her that all was well. 

Murphy was not hurt, and S was in no danger as he moved amongst the horses, touching, smelling and being in the energy of safely-contained, embodied wild nature. This is what S, and all true autists, receive as Medicine from the horses – this experience of elemental nature which moves them to extreme behaviours because it is misunderstood, feared and medicated, here in the horses expressing naturally and allowingly, accepted and understood.

The Healing Energy of Herd

autistic children on horses

Perhaps it is unparalleled as a healing modality, to be able to take autistic children, and other troubled individuals out into the energy of the Herd. The Herd is a living, breathing organism, rich in the Medicine of embodied nature. If redemption is to be found on the journey back into true connection with the universe, then where else can you experience the whole and fully-integrated embodiment of that nature than in the midst of a herd of horses? But a secure herd, empowered and confident, and held by a sensitive human. 

A herd whose social order is rarely disrupted, where the individual horses can move at will, and be moved, where the soles of their feet are in contact with the earth, and where Trust is the basis of relationship. Following the Herd has led me to far places, and deep places. With the horses I have met incredible people who have moved me further along my evolutionary Path; when there are challenges, I meet them with a horse alongside me; when there is joy, I take it out into the Herd, to be shared amongst all members, under the sky and on the earth.

Key4Life and the Medicine Herd

It was a profound moment when I first stood with a group of young men who had just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, and a horse grazing. I had never before engaged with the reality of war, and its impact on the lives of those who serve, and their families. I had never before understood how these young men and women make the choice to serve in the military, to protect those of us who do not serve, to defend the life that we are privileged to enjoy.

Amongst the group I worked with that day, employed by a charity called Key4Life, was a young man who, since serving in Afghanistan. He could not walk on grass because he had been responsible for locating and neutralising explosive devices hidden in long grass. The smell and texture of grass triggered his PTSD, and sent him into agonising melt-downs which reduced him to sobbing and shaking. Reliving horrific scenes played back to him by a tortured mind. 

With the help of the horses, Harry and Phoenix, this young man was facilitated through his trauma response and was able to once again stand on the earth of his own land. Bare feet upon the grass, standing close to black Dales pony, Harry, tears flowed and healing began.

Prison and the Herd

Another place the horses have led me is into prison where the Medicine they carry is much needed. It is the sad case that for many of the boys who are held in our prisons, a meeting with our horses is the first time in years they will have been near an animal. Or any taste of nature.

If it is the case – and we know that it is – that animals and nature provide powerful regulation and reconnection, why are we depriving individuals most in need of this. The very essence of the medicine they need?! How does incarcerating hundreds of disturbed, frightened young men in tiny cells, segregated from one another and from the tide of life running through nature, remedy any situation? Obviously, it does not.

My Initial Resistance

Key4Life with horses

When I was first approached by Key4Life to take horses into prisons, I had to go through a Process with myself, with my ego and prejudice. Judgment was strong in me. These boys had done terrible things, they deserved to be punished! Why should I go out of my way to give them a lovely time with my precious horses?! 

I recognised this as the voice of my False Self, that judges others out of fear and the amygdala’s desperation to survive. Our primitive urge to survive at all costs means that we must ostracise those elements of our herd we class as dangerous or dysfunctional, those elements of ourselves we deem dangerous.

A Beautiful Realisation

How humbling it was to accept the realisation. It was those same primitive reactions to fear that had resulted in the behaviours that had led to these young men being incarcerated! Where was the difference between the response in me of prejudice, judgment and fear, and those same emotions in the young men which had driven them to take the actions they did?

Once I had walked myself through my Process, and fully recognised, There but for the grace of God go I, I made my first trip into a prison with two horses. Since then I have made many trips into a variety of penal institutions. I have met some truly astonishing young men, and witnessed some profound moments between human and horse. But, this for another time perhaps!

Spiritual Workshops at HeartShore Horses

Equine Assisted Soul Experience

You establish a deep connection through your soul, with the essence of who you are. As the vital link with your soul is established, you begin freely expressing and creating from this essential place of strength within you – the place that yearns to be fully alive.

Medicine Herd

The Medicine Journey

The Medicine Journey is an evolving modality that has been part of Heartshore’s methodology for some 8 years. This powerful process has been adapted from an experience that Rupert Isaacson (The Horseboy) witnessed and facilitated with his autistic son, Rowan. 

Medicine Journey

Horse Dance

Often, a horse will decide whom they wish to partner with. The horses’ background and his or her story will often resonate with the person they choose. We dance inside and on the land, working with earth connection, body articulation, grounding and spontaneity. 

Horse Dance Heartshore

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